Pope Francis (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images) Pope Francis (Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images)

Pope Francis did something in his interview with America magazine that I have never seen another pontiff do: He talked about gays and lesbians and their relationship with the church with breathtaking compassion, respect and openness. I pray that his words resonate not only throughout the Catholic Church, but also throughout other Christian denominations.

“In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this,” Pope Francis said. “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

As amazing as that quote is, what the pope says next is equally noteworthy.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.

When was the last time you heard the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics say the word “gay,” let alone talk about gays and lesbians positively in the same breath as God and love? Correct me if I’m wrong, but “never” comes to mind. Before you get to Pope Francis’s remarks on the topic, you read about why he chose to be a Jesuit and what being one means. And these clearly lay out the foundation for his views on gay men and lesbians.

“The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking,” he said. “[T]he Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking at the horizon toward which he must go, with Christ at the center. This is his real strength. And that pushes the Society [of Jesus] to be searching, creative and generous.”

The pope said he believes “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” Adding later, “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

After writing about my experience at my aunt’s funeral last month, I heard from so many people who gave up on religion because of the message of shame and exclusion thundering from the pulpit. Pope Francis’s startlingly warm and open comments about gay people, their place in the church and in the eyes of God are a balm for millions who left the church or feel the church left them.

Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.